Friday, June 20, 2014

Stop! Collaborate and... collaborate

This is the second post in a series I am doing in the lead up to Oxygen 2014 on what events like this can contribute to the broader evangelical scene in Australia.  The first post was on the need for gospel ministers to humbly place themselves under the teaching of other gospel preachers for the benefit of their own ministry. 

I remember coaching a junior cricket team.  Part of the deal was that I had to attend club committee meetings where matters relating to the club and players were discussed.  Often I left these meetings incredibly frustrated because of one moment that would eventuate in almost every meeting.  We would sit around the table and someone would raise an issue that everyone realised was a problem and then someone else would restate the expectation on coaches and club officials and everyone would nod in reflection and offer a hearty “Mmmmmm…” of approval.  But sure enough next meeting the same issue would be raised… the same expectation would be outlined… and the same “Mmmmmm…” would resound around the room.  There were times where I just wanted to scream out, “We are all nodding here like we know what needs to be done… but the fact it keeps coming up means that we aren’t doing it… we aren’t doing what we all affirm to be essential.”

I didn’t say much then and I wished I had… so now that I have noticed something similar in the evangelical world I feel I need to speak.  There is something that just about every evangelical minister I know nods and Mmmmms at but rarely do we ever see any practical steps taken towards acting on what we know to be essential.

I am talking about collaboration for the gospel.  So often I have been party to conversations where unity and inter-church and inter-denominational co-operation are championed… and every one of us nodded and offered hearty approval… but nothing practical ever came of it.  Many are happy to sit around and complain about the ineffectiveness of the western church but few seem willing to actually do something about it.  I don’t know exactly why we constantly refuse to put into action what we know to be essential, but I reckon I can take a few stabs in the dark:
  • Fear – we are scared that others might perceive our desire for unity as a compromise on doctrine… that we would have to give up too many of our core convictions in order to partner with those of other theological and ecclesiological backgrounds.
  • Laziness – we just aren’t prepared to put in the hard yards that it takes to collaborate with others.  It takes hours of work just trying to find time for more than 3 ministers to meet together let alone the effort and co-ordination it takes to plan events. 
  • Narrow-mindedness – deep down inside we think our denomination and our church are on a pedestal high above all the others and that we alone have got it right.  All too easily we can pick holes in the others and justify our decision to refuse to participate in any gospel collaboration.
  • Pride – possibly the real killer in all of this.  If we are to be honest we like to think that when revival comes that it will be our denomination… our church… and more specifically us… whose names are linked to the success. We don’t want to share the glory of church growth with another; we want to be the next leading light in the evangelical world.
We probably aren't brave enough to admit it but our reluctance to collaborate communicates that we fear man more than God... that we can't be bothered sacrificing for what is right... that we view our tribe as being the only bastion of truth... and that we care more about our glory than the glory of God... Basically we have to admit that our refusal to collaborate actually communicates the complete opposite of the gospel we claim to preach.  But gospel collaboration offers so much more:
  • Enriches our ministry – the reality is that each denomination/church/group (though we are rarely honest enough to admit it) have some areas of strength and other areas of weakness.  Normally we are blind to our weaknesses because we are too enraptured with our strengths, but collaborating with those whose strengths are different to ours enables us to see our blind spots and can give us a living example of how to rediscover aspects of ministry that we may have forgotten.
  • Provides personal support – we all know that iron sharpens iron… but when you bury your head in ministry because you are flat out just trying to serve the people of your church and reach the people of your community it is easy for us not to run into any iron for sharpening.  Ministers spend most of their lives with people but can be among some of the most lonely people you know because they rarely get time to invest in their own close friendships.  But collaboration regularly brings minsters into contact with one another and you can find true friends and fellow soldiers with whom you can stand in solidarity.  
  • Attractive to the world – there are many in our Australian society who see the church as arrogant, self-centred, irrelevant and disconnected from their lives.  We have to admit that our disunity has been a major contributing factor to this attitude.  But gospel collaboration can break down this wall because when churches and ministers humbly surrender their own preferences and unite in order to bless others it mirrors the sacrificial heart of Jesus.
So here is where a convention like Oxygen can contribute something of value.  Simply by providing a context where thousands of gospel ministers will be coming together from around the country Oxygen has got us halfway to collaboration... it has got us in the same room.  I guarantee you that if you come to Oxygen you will have the usual “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do more together for the gospel” conversation… without thinking the words will come out of your mouth and you will nod and Mmmmm in approval.  The question is what will you do next?

Will you be content to keep up appearances and simply be one of the resounding Mmmmms… or will you pick up the phone, send an e-mail or meet someone for coffee with the view to partnership in the gospel?  Will you do what you know to be essential or remain in the realm of denial?  And I am not talking about random one off meetings where you might see someone from another church/denomination where you can tick off a little “cross-denominational involvement” box in your head… I am talking about regular collaboration with a view to implementing tangible opportunities for promoting the gospel together.  

Oxygen is not going to solve this problem… but it could be the catalyst we need.  If you go with a heart that is open to giving more than lip-service to gospel collaboration and courage to be the one who makes the first moves towards it… then maybe Oxygen could be the context for radical change in your local area. 

In closing, Tim Keller was asked what level of theological and/or ecclesiological similarity you would need to have in order to collaborate with another minister or church… his answer, “Well you don’t need to have too much in common to pray with someone.”  It really isn’t that hard… in fact as followers of Christ the desire to even just pray with other ministers of the gospel should be in our DNA.

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